How to Rebound from Bad Grades


Hi, all. Today, we’ll be discussing the dreaded bad grades and, more importantly, strategies for moving on.

So, you either have or have not put in the hours of studying, taken the test, and…you’ve gotten a “bad grade.” Your definition of a bad grade might not match someone else’s definition of poor performance, but, at the moment, that doesn’t matter. You have the grade now, and you’re dissatisfied —  maybe even disheartened.

Maybe you put in hours of studying or chose to stay in the library rather than go to that fun event last weekend. Maybe you pulled a frantic all nighter the day before the exam. Either way, the reality is: you have this less-than-satisfactory grade, and what matters is what you do next.


Maybe you’re panicking, maybe you’re not. Personally, after my second orgo midterm, I was immersed in complete and utter panic. I had put in more hours of studying than I had for any other test, ever, and had still performed poorly. I seriously considered dropping the course. All I could think was: well, I put in the hours. I reviewed all the lectures. I gave up my weekends. Maybe I’m just not capable of understanding the material, maybe I’m not smart enough.

In my panic, I couldn’t think clearly. I didn’t stop to consider the fact that maybe others in the course were finding it as difficult as I was. All I could focus on was my own failure to meet my own expectations — and that number. I equated my own intellectual capabilities with that number and completely ignored everything else.

Luckily for me, I happened to meet a senior a few days later for an unrelated meeting. She happened to mention that one of her tutees was panicking about his orgo grade. Wait, I thought, that sounds familiar. She told me how she’d taken the same course herself and had found it just as challenging. She’d failed one of the midterms and now was a tutor for the course.

For me, this was just what I needed to hear — I needed hope and I needed to see that I was not alone. I ended up completing the course and, yes, it was difficult and, no, I did not magically begin to earn perfect scores on every assignment afterwards…but I saw significant improvements simply because my mindset had improved.

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In short, allow yourself a minute to wallow. Now, pick yourself up. You are not alone, and this is not the end of your career/hopes/aspirations. One score is not an indication of your intelligence or self worth. You can recover from this, but first you need to accept it as a minor setback and, most importantly, do not beat yourself up about it. You are a worthy, capable individual, and no one can take that away — not even yourself.


Now that you’ve accepted that this event has happened and that it is in no way an indication of your self worth, it’s time to assess your study habits objectively. Maybe you were distracted while you were studying — maybe you didn’t study at all. In either case, it’s time to make some improvements. Personally, I find that, while I put in many hours, some of those hours are empty. I’ll take a “brief” Youtube break or I’ll mindlessly refresh my email. I’ll find constant distractions because I don’t want to study. Or, I might try to study in my room, which is never a good idea because, well, my bed is right there, and I’ll just end up sleeping or looking at dog photos.

Actively studying is hard. It takes a lot of mental concentration and self control. It’s relatively easy to skim through lectures or blindly watch lecture videos, and it’s even easier to assume that doing these things means you’re prepared for the exam. As painful as it might be, there is no substitute for actively doing problems or reframing material.

For STEM courses, I find doing practice tests and problems the most valuable. Redo any old homework you found particularly challenging and make sure you understand anything you got wrong. For non-STEM courses, I like to make sure I understand the bigger picture, and I will close my eyes and mentally map out broader themes of the material covered.

You have limited time, so you need to be executing the strategies that give you the most return. Maya’s laid out some great strategies in the midterm preparation post, which I highly recommend checking out!

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School should be challenging — after all, isn’t that the point of education? It could be the case that you did not understand the material going into the exam or that there was material you didn’t even know would be on the assessment. Either way, it’s important to identify all areas of confusion so you know what to focus on. Yes, it’s painful to go through an exam or paper that’s marked up, but you need to review it carefully.

Chances are, this material will come up again. You might have a final paper or exam, and you’ll need to know the material then. Even if you won’t ever see this material again, it’s still valuable to go through the assessment to identify areas where you performed poorly. Maybe you’re prone to careless mistakes towards the end of the exam, and maybe that’s because you’re tired by the end. In that case, you can tailor future studying strategies towards building endurance.

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Now that you’ve identified areas of confusion and revised future strategies, it’s time to ask for help. Make an appointment to meet with your professor or teaching assistant to go over your exam. It might feel embarrassing to have to walk into their office with your grade displayed, but they will recognize this and respect you for wanting to improve. After all, they’re human, too. They have definitely received bad grades themselves — everyone does at some point.

Your teacher can give you tips for learning material specific to that course, and they might even provide opportunities to revise your assignment. They can guide you to other resources as well and might even recommend some good tutoring resources. You should not be embarrassed to ask for a tutor or to recognize that you need outside help. Chances are, many of your classmates are in the same position.

I hope these tips help you, and, above all, please remember that bad grades do not represent the end of the road. Everyone suffers from setbacks, and it’s what you do going forward that will define you. Let us know below if you have any more tips! 🙂

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